Archive: indycar

It is awful that, less than a week after the death of Dan Wheldon, another major motorsport star has been killed during a race.

Unlike IndyCar, I follow MotoGP quite closely and I have watched all of the races this year. I was a big fan of Marco Simoncelli. For me, Marco Simoncelli was the clear stand-out rider in a MotoGP series that is not as exciting as it once was.

Simoncelli had his critics. Some thought he was too aggressive. It is perhaps true that sometimes he stepped beyond the line. But he was still young. As this year progressed he was beginning to become a more measured rider — and he was no less exciting for it.

Simoncelli has single-handedly saved a few dull MotoGP races by actually doing extraordinary, exciting things. His talent was clear for all to see, and I personally thought he would become a World Champion in the future.

Sadly the journey came to an end today. What is especially sad is that in the lap or so up to his fatal accident, he was demonstrating exactly what made him such a wonderful spectacle in a brilliant ding-dong battle with Alvaro Bautista.

Thoughts must also go out to Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, who collided with Marco Simoncelli. It must be an unimaginably awful experience.

It is always a hair-raising experience watching motorcycles race. It is clearly an especially dangerous form of motorsport. As we see time and again, when control is lost, a bike can go anywhere. Worse still, a rider can go anywhere too. It is always a heart-stopping moment when a rider goes down in the middle of the circuit as opposed to a run-off area.

The skill and bravery of motorcycle racers is one of the things that makes it such a draw. But today, there was another reminder that the quest for more safety can never stop.

Thanks for entertaining us, Marco Simoncelli.

I was very shocked and upset to learn about the death of Dan Wheldon.

I don’t watch IndyCar for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the fact that I don’t have Sky. If I did have Sky, I probably would watch, and I certainly keep up-to-date with the news from IndyCar in general.

Nothing qualifies me to say anything about Dan Wheldon, as I have never watched him race. But I was fully aware of what he achieved in IndyCar. With 16 IndyCar race victories — two of which were the Indianapolis 500, arguably the most prestigious race in the world — and an IndyCar championship under his belt, it is clear that Dan Wheldon was a class act.

It is difficult to escape the impression that IndyCar is a particularly dangerous category in motorsport. There are some horrendous incidents in IndyCar with high-speed cars, narrow oval circuits and inexperienced drivers. All of these are currently being pinpointed as contributory factors towards Dan Wheldon’s death.

But it would be naive to imagine that accidents like this won’t happen in any form of motorsport. I don’t know how it would affect me if I were to watch a fatal accident unfold before my eyes live on television. It has never happened before to me. With drivers and riders that I know of and follow, in categories that I enjoy, it is difficult enough just to hear the news from a secondary source.

As fans of motorsport, we sit down to watch a race in anticipation of being entertained. Usually it delivers. But instead, it sometimes presents this.

I have heard it said that one reason we love motorsport is because it can cover the full spectrum of human emotions. If only that wasn’t true.

Today it was announced that the Asian rounds of Superleague Formula have been cancelled. This is on top of the earlier cancellation of the South American rounds. The original 2011 calendar also contained races in Russia, the middle east, Australia and New Zealand. None of these took place.

In the end, the only two races that took place were at Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. This means that the championship was decided way back in July — but we only learned that today!

It was already quite an effort for those two races to take place anyway. Superleague had seemed worryingly dormant over the winter, and many suspected that it was dead.

Following in the footsteps of A1GP

The parallels between Superleague and A1GP (another failed attempt at an ‘F1 alternative’) have always been striking. Both have core concepts that are slightly alien to motorsport.

A1GP described itself as the “World Cup of Motorsport”. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t even win races. Nations did.

Meanwhile, Superleague was designed as a cross between football and motor racing. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t win races. Football clubs did. Any football fans I ever spoke to about Superleague were not very interested in the series. For this reason, the format was always going to be a loser.

But on the plus side for both A1GP and Superleague, they both provided some quite entertaining racing. And it is on this basis that they both attracted a cult following — a small but loyal fanbase. But this clearly isn’t enough of a fanbase to sustain a series for more than a few years.

A1GP lasted for four years. Cunningly, the series was run over the winter. Not very traditional for a motorsport series, but this meant that they could draw in motorsport fans suffering from withdrawal symptoms. It was moderately successful, and it led to GP2 (the closest thing there is to an official feeder series to F1) creating a spin-off GP2 Asia series that was run in winter. (GP2 Asia has since also been wound up, having had a troubled 2010–2011 season of its own when it was affected by the unrest in Bahrain.)

Not a super formula

When A1GP closed down, Superleague opened up and has so far continued for three seasons. Superleague runs with the same type of car, with the same type of drivers on the same types of circuits. For want of a better phrase, these are a B-class car, with B-class drivers on largely B-class circuits.

I have nothing against this personally, and I personally enjoyed watching A1GP and Superleague whenever I got the chance. But you have to question whether it is a formula for success in terms of bringing in an audience.

Sad but true: the standard isn’t high enough

There are lots of brilliant series below Formula 1 that provide real appeal. It is a sad fact that the motor racing world revolves around Formula 1, and the most successful sub-F1 open-wheel series are all about finding the F1 stars of the future. GP2, World Series by Renault, GP3 and the many Formula 3 series all stake their claim as being a testing ground for the stars of the future.

But series like A1GP and Superleague Formula cannot make this claim. As a result, their appeal is sadly limited. A series like Superleague is populated by drivers who aren’t good enough to progress further up the ladder. Some drivers almost made it to F1, but didn’t quite have the last bit that was required. If you’re lucky, there might be the odd ex-F1 driver like Jos Verstappen. But the world isn’t exactly set alight by the prospect of a battle between Neel Jani and Craig Dolby.

It is true that A1GP has been a stomping ground for a few future F1 drivers like Nico Hülkenberg. But these drivers had to make their way through GP2 aftewards to get to F1.

Because let’s be fair here. It is generous to describe the drivers in Superleague as ‘B-class’. B-class open-wheel racers can be found in IndyCar. IndyCar struggles enough to survive as it is. But at least some of its drivers are household names like Dario Franchitti or Takuma Sato. Jobbing open-wheelers whose sights haven’t extended to IndyCar end up in a series like Superleague.

While I have always found the concept of Superleague Formula to be shaky, I do hope that it is able to survive this embarrassing season and come back stronger in 2012. But I sadly doubt it will be the case.

I will review the Hungarian Grand Prix soon, but I have a couple of other articles I need to get out of the way first. I didn’t want to do any of that before mentioning Felipe Massa.

It goes without saying that I deeply hope that Felipe Massa makes a full recovery, and that it won’t be too long before he is racing again.

I was shaking during qualifying as news of what had happened to Massa had emerged. I don’t think I have ever felt that bad in all the time I have been watching Formula 1 since 1995, although Robert Kubica’s accident at Montreal in 2007 came close to that feeling.

I said last week following the death of Henry Surtees that the greatest risk that faces racing drivers is not having a heavy impact with a wall, but being hit by a wheel. This week we must extend that to debris in general. The spring that fell off Rubens Barrichello’s car is said to have weighed around a kilogram, not the sort of thing you want to be approaching at upwards of 160mph. Meanwhile, his car’s heavy impact with the tyre barrier does not appear to have caused or exacerbated any serious injury.

Martin Brundle has rightly pointed out that the term “freak accident” is inappropriate in motorsport. When you are travelling at speeds regularly approaching 200mph, there is only so much you can ever do to make it safe.

But there is no doubting that Felipe Massa was extraordinarily unlucky. The part that failed on the Brawn had never failed before. The spring then bounced around for four seconds, before just happening to be in exactly the right position to hit Massa’s helmet. You couldn’t aim it like that if you tried. Had Massa arrived a second earlier or later, or been a few inches further to the right, we probably would never have known about the spring flying around on the track.

That this should have happened just six days after the death of Henry Surtees adds further to the sense of tragedy. When you have one tragic accident it might be easy to dismiss it as a freak one-off, but to have two similar incidents in close succession rings alarm bells. Rubens Barrichello has compared this week to Imola 1994.

There will be a renewed look at safety, which I sense has taken a back seat since cost cutting became the more fashionable cause. Many are asking, is it time for Formula 1 to consider closed cockpits? The debate has been started by Ross Brawn, F1 Fanatic and Checkpoint 10. But there are no easy answers. This weekend during an IndyCar race we saw a perfect demonstration of the extra dangers that a closed cockpit may create, when Tony Kanaan’s car caught fire following a refuelling problem.

Going back to Felipe Massa, ever since the second he hit the tyre barrier the reports that have come out have been conflicting and confusing. Thankfully, the latest news appears to be positive. Let us hope that Massa will make a full and speedy recovery.

Forza Felipe.

I was originally quite pleased when I heard earlier this year that the Formula 1 teams had finally decided to put their differences aside and join together as the Formula One Teams Association. At last, someone with teeth who can stand up the Max Mosley and the FIA.

That’s all well and good if FOTA turns out to be half-decent and come up with good solutions. Unfortunately, the signs are now that the teams’ ideas for the future of Formula 1 are every bit as barmy as Mad Max’s.

Take a paragraph buried in Pitpass’s story on Luca di Montezemolo’s whines about the Singapore Grand Prix earlier this week. As it happens, I kind of agree with most of what di Montezemolo had to say, although that is for a different post. But as though the shock of agreeing with the execrable Ferrari President (who also happens to be President of FOTA) wasn’t enough, what Pitpass revealed about FOTA’s early ideas literally left me open-mouthed in shock and disillusionment.

We hear that at last week’s meeting a number of issues which could result in a seismic change to the sport were discussed, including standard transmissions, standard wheels, standard brakes and standard rear wings.

We hear there may even be a vote on whether F1 should have a weight handicap system!

Excuse me for swearing, but what the very fuck?! What is this pish? Standard transmissions, wheels, brakes and even aero? Why not go the whole hog and throw in standard drivers as well? We might as well pay to watch a glorified Scalextric race.

This is beginning to look like a complete stitch-up. I know the teams desperately want to cut costs, but this is just extreme. With practically spec cars, the only competition left in F1 will be over who has the biggest motorhome and the best catering.

Lest the powers-that-be forget, Formula 1 is supposed to be all about watching the best drivers in the best cars, and that means teams constantly innovating in as many areas as possible. F1 is supposed to be about technological excellence. FOTA’s plan sounds like a watered-down European version of IndyCar — and there is a reason why so few people watch those lorries tootling round the place.

If you want to watch a spec series, you can take your pick. There is GP2, A1GP (if they can ever get round to actually building the blasted cars), World Series by Renault and now even Max Mosley’s sorry Formula Two scheme. That is not to mention the literally countless spec series that operate lower down the chain.

If even Formula 1 becomes a spec series with standard this, that and the other, what is left? Please. We have to have at least one motor racing category that is dedicated to technological advancement. The world is already over-populated with spec series that there would simply be no point in F1 transforming into one.

I haven’t even gone into the weight handicap system. Needless to say, this would be a total disaster for F1. We want to see the best drivers and the best cars win. That is what sport is supposed to be about. Why should people be punished for being fast? What a load of nonsense. Remember, BTCC’s figures went off a cliff when they introduced their ludicrous ballast system. Why do they think we want to see fast cars going slowly? Keith skewers weight handicap systems here as well.

Meanwhile, Martin Whitmarsh has unveiled FOTA’s big plan for spicing up the Grand Prix weekend. But it doesn’t sound very spicy to me. Apparently, the biggest problem with Formula 1 is Fridays! Silly me for not noticing! And what is the great thing that is going to solve this ill? A mickey mouse time trial with a cash prize!

WTF?! First of all, Fridays are the one bit of F1 that are more-or-less perfect if you ask me. They are called practice sessions, I get to watch the cars practicing. For me, that is a win. There is a certain pleasure to be derived from watching F1 cars do their thing at high speed but without necessarily competing with one another.

Why does this — of all aspects of the F1 weekend — need to be tampered with? Why does there need to be competitive action on a Friday? As far as I’m concerned, Friday is for practicing. Competitive action is for a Sunday.

Don’t forget that no-one will watch anything if it happens on a Friday. People are at work. They’re doing other things. Remember the doomed experiment with spreading qualifying over two days. That was pretty hastily dropped because they realised that no-one could be bothered watching the Sunday morning session — and that was a Sunday, never mind a Friday!

As for having a cash prize, I mean please. This isn’t a game show — it’s Formula 1. Besides, do they really think fans will be that bothered to watch mega-rich drivers getting even richer? No thanks.

See more on this from Clive at F1 Insight, with whom I totally agree on this.

I think I preferred the chaos and deadlock of old over these hare-brained schemes of FOTA.

This is the second part of my two-part series looking at other motor racing series. Read the first part here.

Routes to F1

Entry-level series (yellow boxes)

These series are — as the heading suggests — ideal for those drivers who have just finished karting and are racing cars for the first time.

Formula Renault 2.0

The most popular entry-level series at the moment is Formula Renault. There are a number of major Formula Renault championships.

Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 is the most major of the Formula Renault 2.0 competitions, racing at a number of circuits around Europe. Robert Kubica, Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa (who won the series) all competed in this championship. Other winners of the series include Scott Speed and Pedro de la Rosa. 2005 victor Kamui Kobayashi is currently on the up in GP2.

Formula Renault 2.0 UK is another high-profile competition. Kimi Räikkönen was at the centre of a controversy when he — uniquely — made the leap from this competition directly to an F1 race seat! There was a debate as to whether or not he should have been awarded an FIA Super License. In the end the F1 Commission was convinced by his form, and it turned out to be the right decision.

A few years later Lewis Hamilton won this series, though he took a more conventional route to F1. Other notable names to have graduated from Formula Renault UK include Heikki Kovalainen and Pedro de la Rosa. British viewers can catch Formula Renault UK races on ITV4 as part of the channel’s BTCC coverage.

Formula Renault 2.0 Italia was a breeding ground for Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa. Other recent winners include Finnish promise Mika Mäki (currently doing well in F3 Euroseries), Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado and Kamui Kobayashi (who both currently compete in GP2).

Formula Renault 2.0 West European Cup is brand new for this season, but replaces the well-established Championnat de France Formula Renault 2.0, the history of which stretches back to 1971. The French series was graced by the presence of then-future French F1 drivers Alain Prost, Jacques Laffite, René Arnoux, Didier Pironi, Sébastien Bourdais, Olivier Panis and Franck Montagny.

However, the championship was highly France-centric. It is replaced by a more internationally-flavoured series encompassing Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup replaced the old German and Dutch championships. Recent F1 drivers to have competed in German Formula Renault include Vitantonio Liuzzi, Chrisitan Klien, Scott Speed and Markus Winkelhock.

Formul’Academy Euro Series is a Formula Renault 1.6 championship, unlike the championships listed above which are all Formula Renault 2.0. Formerly known as Formule Campus Renault, this is, unsurprisingly, an entry-level series for those not quite ready to make the leap to 2.0. Sébastien Bourdais and Franck Montagny are among this competition’s former drivers.

Formula Ford

Formula Ford used to be a highly popular entry-level category but has been usurped somewhat in recent years. Formula Renault, Formula BMW and the relatively cost-effective Formula First / Formula Vee (no relation) are now more attractive for today’s entry-level drivers. However, many of today’s F1 drivers competed in Formula Ford in the past.

The Formula Ford Festival is an annual event where entrants from Formula Ford competitions around the world compete together. Among them were Kimi Räikkönen, Mark Webber and David Coulthard. But entry levels have declined sharply in recent years.

British Formula Ford is a good entry-level series for Brits. F1 drivers including David Coulthard, Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button (who was British Formula Ford champion in 1998) all took part. Non-Brits Mark Webber and Pedro de la Rosa also competed in this series.

Formula BMW

Formula BMW is a relatively recent invention, having been created by BMW in 2001. But it has quickly become a popular entry-level series. The German series, Formula BMW ADAC, has been particularly successful in cultivating German talent — Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock, Sebastian Vettel, Adrian Sutil and Christian Klien all raced in the series. Hopefuls Nico Hülkenberg and Christian Vietoris (who subsequently helped the German A1GP team to Championship victory) are also notable graduates.

However, the German series is no more as it has now merged with Formula BMW UK. The new series is called Formula BMW Europe. Most of these races are F1 support races this season.

Sports cars and touring cars (green boxes)

Drivers taking a detour from the established route to F1 are often to be found racing sports cars of some form or another. In fact, almost half of the F1 drivers of the past five years have raced sports cars at some point during their careers.

Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (merged from Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft and the International Touring Car Championship) is a popular touring car championship centred around Germany. Giancarlo Fisichella, Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya all competed in DTM in its former guise prior to competing in F1.

Nowadays DTM is more commonly a destination for former F1 drivers such as Ralf Schumacher, Jean Alesi and Mika Häkkinen. However, the odd youngster has been known still to use DTM as a stepping stone towards a higher category — most notably Christijan Albers (who has since returned to DTM).

The World Touring Car Championship is another common patch for former F1 drivers. A notable driver to recently take this path is Tiago Montiero. Felipe Massa competed in the WTCC’s predecessor, the European Touring Car Championship, on his way to F1.

The British Touring Car Championship is hugely popular among viewers in the UK, but is far removed from the flow of talent to and from F1.

The annual 24 Hours of Le Mans event is considered to be one of motor racing’s crown jewels along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. Many future and former F1 drivers compete in the event. The competition has inspired the successful American Le Mans Series which in turn inspired the European-based Le Mans Series.

The FIA GT Championship was a stepping stone in Mark Webber’s career towards F1, but is more likely to be inhabited by former F1 drivers. Super GT is a GT series based in Japan. Kazuki Nakajima and Adrian Sutil both raced in this championship prior to F1. Porsche Supercup races are often F1 support races. Timo Glock and Nelsinho Piquet have competed in this series in the past.

Nascar (purple box)

Although F1 may be considered to be the highest level of motor racing in the world, this may not be the case in the USA. There, the most popular form of motor sport is Nascar, a stock car series. Some ex-F1 drivers and former hopefuls currently race there.

There are three major levels of Nascar: the Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series and the Craftsman Truck Series. Former F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya currently races in the Sprint Cup. But thanks to the wide differences between Nascar and F1, and the sniffy attitude the F1 community takes towards Nascar, the chances of any Nascar drivers making the leap to F1 are very slim.

IndyCar (cyan box)

Closer to F1 is IndyCar (which this year merged with the troubled Champ Car). Like F1, this is an open-wheel, open-cockpit series that to the untrained eye may look very similar to Formula 1. Many drivers have made the transition from IndyCar / Champ Car to F1 over the years (as you can see in Keith’s comprehensive series).

However, in recent years the American open-wheel scene became less competitive due to the IRL / Cart split (hence the two names for the sport) and drivers making the leap from there to F1 has become less common. However, current Toro Rosso driver Sébastien Bourdais used to race in Champ Car. An IndyCar grid can often contain many former F1 drivers.

Other major motor racing series (not on the diagram)

The series mentioned so far in this article cover all of the major series that are closely related to F1. Of course, there are other major disciplines that have only the most tangential of relationships to F1.

Motorcycles

MotoGP is the premier motorcycle racing championship. It is the motorcycle equivalent of F1. Superbikes are more like the two-wheeled equivalent of touring cars, as the bikes are tuned versions of road-legal bikes.

It goes without saying that the skills needed for success on two wheels are vastly different to those needed on four. However, this doesn’t stop the more excitable journalists from imagining MotoGP riders making the switch to F1. From time to time MotoGP riders test Formula 1 cars, but this is for publicity reasons more than anything else.

Rallying

Rally cars are modified road-legal vehicles that typically run on point-to-point stages rather than circuits. The biggest rally series is the World Rally Championship. Due to the variety and difficulty of the conditions that rally drivers have to face, they can arguably claim to be the best drivers in the world. WRC is currently dominated by Sébastien Loeb who has won the WRC championship for four years running.

Again, the skills required are vastly different to F1. I can think of only one F1–WRC crossover in recent years. Stéphane Sarrazin competed in one F1 race in 1999 and has entered some WRC events as a tarmac specialist.

Once again I have found myself becoming more annoyed with Lewis Hamilton because of his interviews following a controversial on-track incident. The first time this happened was during the Brazilian Grand Prix — ironically following another incident with Kimi Räikkönen.

This time round in Canada, Lewis Hamilton pulled off the distinctly un-Senna-esque feat of crashing himself out in the pitlane after failing to observe a red light. Even though I’m not a fan of Lewis Hamilton, and am a vocal critic of the mad unjustified hype that surrounds him, I didn’t feel too much schadenfreude.

The thing is, the British media’s plan of convincing us all the Hamilton is one of the best drivers there has ever been — an equal to Senna — is blatantly beginning to backfire now. And when it comes to the British press, that can mean only one thing: the backlash. And that’s not pretty to see, and it would be a real shame for Hamilton to suffer this.

The thing is that he is a genuinely talented driver, but the British media built him up so much that he couldn’t realistically achieve what the public would inevitably expect from him. So just because he is a very good driver rather than a great driver, he is going to face some horrific treatment from the media soon.

Indeed, the post-Canada backlash was pretty bad, as summarised by Axis of Oversteer. The Daily Star even went as far as to suggest that an ‘L’ plate should be affixed to Hamilton’s McLaren in future.

Others — still trying to push the ‘Hamilton is the new Senna’ myth — looked to blame the team, particularly on ITV. Nothing is ever Hamilton’s fault, it seems. If he presses the wrong button on the steering wheel, it’s McLaren’s fault for having the button there in the first place. If he crashes into someone it’s the cars fault for losing its bridge wing. And now that he failed to observe a red light, it’s the team’s fault for not telling him about the red light.

The thing about McLaren is that, partly because of the team’s culture and partly because it is also in their interest to present Hamilton as the greatest driver alive, McLaren will happily absorb all of the blame in these situations. So it’s a win-win — the media gets to blame McLaren and McLaren happily take the blame to support their driver.

But should McLaren be warning their drivers about things like red lights? I remember a few years back the F1 world dissolved into fits of laughter when it was revealed on the FOM world feed one race that Takuma Sato was being told over the radio when to move left or right. That, of course, is meant to be the driver’s judgement call.

So what is it to be? Should the driver’s hand be held throughout the race by a committee of “spotters”? Isn’t the driver paid to make these judgements for himself? This isn’t mickey mouse IndyCar or Nascar — this is Formula 1, which is supposed to contain the 20 best drivers in the world.

The fact is that Lewis Hamilton shouldn’t have needed any kind of notification or signal from his team that there was a red light at the end of the pitlane. There was already a very clear signal: the actual red light. He should have seen this. It is his job to see it. He failed. Game over.

The thing is, Hamilton made a silly mistake. Or at least, it sounds like a silly mistake. He failed to observe a red light. The right light is a classic obstacle; one that millions of road drivers every day manage to navigate with ease. As such, Hamilton’s incident is perfect for tabloid ridicule.

But the red light problem is relatively uncommon in Formula 1. Even though the presence of the red light during Safety Car periods has been around for yonks, for various reasons drivers in the past normally encountered this light as green and it was rarely an issue.

However, the red light is a particular problem at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve because the pitlane is so short compared with the actual race circuit that runs along next to it. The pitlane is basically a continuation of the long straight whereas the start / finish straight has a chicane at one end of it and a tricky ‘S’ bend at the other. Juan Pablo Montoya was disqualified a few years ago in Canada for running the red light. Fisichella and Massa were disqualified last year. The problem has become more common at other circuits now partly due to the new Safety Car rules.

Anyway, Hamilton fell foul of a rule that he should have known about. But it is still a relatively uncommon incident, so perhaps it is not much of a surprise that checking for the red light slipped his mind. After all, Nico Rosberg slammed straight into the back of Hamilton having also failed to spot the red light. I saw Hamilton’s incident as a silly but understandable mistake.

However, Lewis Hamilton’s post-race interviews made sure that any sympathy I had for him drained away pretty quickly. Here he exhibited all of the characteristics that rub me up the wrong way about Lewis Hamilton.

First of all there is the refusal to accept he made a mistake. You can tell he knows he was in the wrong. Even as he got out of the car his body language said it all. He looked simultaneously embarrassed and angry. But he just can’t bring himself to actually say it. This week’s Chequered Flag podcast has an interview that demonstrates his evasion of responsibility (it’s 13 minutes in if you want to look for it):

Lewis Hamilton: You can’t even call it a racing incident really, can you? I mean, what is it?
Holly Samos: Just one of those mistakes?
LH: I don’t… I don’t call it one of those either. I don’t know what I’d call it.

I would definitely agree with him that it was not a racing incident. A racing incident is what happens when two people are racing for position and it’s a 50/50 situation and both end up colliding and it’s no-one’s fault in particular. This certainly wasn’t the case here. Kimi Räikkönen was just minding his own business and the whole incident can be put down to Hamilton’s brainfade.

So it must have been a mistake, right? Not according to Lewis Hamilton. He can’t even bring himself to use the word ‘mistake’ in his response, calling it instead “one of those”. But the fact that he doesn’t know what to call it other than a mistake says it all. Listening to him duck responsibility like this is as painful and embarrassing as listening to a politician evade a pressing question.

The interview also encapsulates Hamilton’s rather misplaced confidence. You might call it cocky or even out-and-out arrogance. In his interview with ITV he asserted that he was “breezing it” during the race. In the BBC interview he said, “We were the best this weekend. No-one could touch us this weekend.” But you certainly aren’t the best — you definitely aren’t untouchable — if you are prone to a silly brainfade moment like that.

Moreover, it’s not clear that Hamilton would automatically have won the Canadian Grand Prix without the pitlane incident. He looked good in qualifying, but we don’t really know how much fuel Kimi Räikkönen had. Filling up at that stage of the race, almost certainly both cars would have needed to stop again, in which case Räikkönen probably had the advantage because he had got out in front of Hamilton. And, having fuelled lighter, Kimi may have been able to pull out a decent lead.

McLaren really needed to win in Canada. The circuit is known to suit the McLaren in particular. Coming off the back of Monaco — another McLaren-friendly circuit — meant that these were two vital races for McLaren and they really needed to maximise their points haul to make much of this year’s championships.

As it was, Ferrari looked surprisingly good in Monaco and Hamilton needed a dash of luck to take victory there. Meanwhile, Kovalainen could only manage one point in Monaco. In Canada, McLaren came away with a big fat zilch. Make no mistake — this is a major blow to McLaren’s chances. The next few circuits suit Ferrari better and this could be the red team’s opportunity to pull out a serious lead.

Canada was probably McLaren’s best chance to grab 18 points in a weekend but instead BMW took the 1-2. And now McLaren lie 3rd in the Championship. They can’t have been planning for that. Furthermore, the fact that the McLaren underneath Kovalainen did not perform in Canada must be ringing alarm bells in Woking. Far from “breezing it”, I think McLaren will now be bricking it.

Just after the Malaysian Grand Prix, Negative Camber posted a couple of rants up over at Formula 1 Blog about the excuses that the British media were making for Lewis Hamilton after his mediocre showing.

First of all, the media have used the fact that Hamilton was unable to drink water as a convenient explanation of his poor form. It has to be said, the nadir is this headline in The Daily Excess Express: Thirsty work but Lewis shows bottle.

What all of these stories fail to mention is the fact that Robert Kubica was also unable to drink his water because it was too hot. He joked that he might as well put tea in the bottle instead. Additionally, Kubica had been ill all week. All of this didn’t stop him from finishing second in the race.

Not only this, but Fernando Alonso also had a problem with his drink! On the Renault podcast this week they made the same joke about tea. Admittedly, Alonso’s performance was not so stellar either. But it goes to show that this water problem does not make Hamilton as much of a hero as the British press is attempting to make out.

Water problems do not only afflict drivers in Malaysia. In the Australian Grand Prix, in similarly hot conditions, Heidfeld’s drink mechanism completely failed before the beginning of the race, as you will see in the liveblog from that race (discussion 5:27 onwards). Despite this, Quick Nick was good enough to finish 2nd.

In short: nice try, British press, but the excuse just doesn’t cut it.

A different explanation was put forward by Maurice Hamilton in a blog post for the Top Gear website.

This was not Lewis Hamilton’s weekend. He woke on Saturday morning to an unspecified personal problem ‘I’m not telling you about it but it’s something I’ve learned to deal with’ and his day – and subsequently, his race – went downhill from there.

The only other place I have heard this mentioned was very briefly on the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast, which is co-presented by… Maurice Hamilton. The nature of Lewis Hamilton’s problem is sketchy. David Croft suggested it may just be that he got out on the wrong side of his bed. But if there is something more serious occupying Hamilton’s mind, that may be a more plausible explanation for his scruffy weekend. It certainly explains why he was on top on Friday but decidedly mediocre from Saturday onwards.

If Lewis Hamilton does have a problem in his private life, he has my sympathy. But a great driver knows how to cope with such things. I remember when Michael Schumacher’s mother died. Personal problems do not get much bigger than that. Yet the next day he took the race victory in Imola.

If you think I am judging Lewis Hamilton harshly here, you are right. So what is the point I am trying to make? Well, it brings me on to Negative Camber’s second post and the accompanying rant that can be found on this week’s Formula 1 Blog podcast.

It is difficult to fault Negative Camber’s point that it was premature of British journalists to start comparing Hamilton to legendary drivers like Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna. It still angers me to this day that Matt Bishop said on the radio that Hamilton was in a league with Fangio, Clark, Senna, Schumacher — and no-one else.

It was just such a ridiculous thing to say. It simply devalues the achievements of the four truly great drivers that Bishop placed in that ‘top tier’. It does absolutely no justice to the legacies of Fangio, Clark and Senna.

And Bishop said that just three races into Hamilton’s career! We hadn’t even seen Hamilton win a race yet. In fairness, he has since achieved that. But we also hadn’t seen him drive a wet race — and we’ve since seen him fail that challenge. We also hadn’t seen him face a championship battle — and we’ve since seen him fail that challenge.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It now seems to be taken as read — in the British press at least, though not so much in he rest of the world it seems (I wonder why!) — that Hamilton is one of the greatest drivers ever to have lived. Negative Camber is right to say that if you are going to treat a driver like this so early on in his career, you should expect little less than perfection. You expect to see a Schumacher-grade performance week-in, week-out.

Of course, Schumacher had his off days, as does every other human being on the planet. But this is the point. Careers are made of ups and downs. They are not made in one season, and they are certainly not made of three races.

At some points during a career, a driver will find himself in a good car, in good circumstances and with luck on his side. This was the situation with Hamilton, at least in the first half of 2007. At other points, a driver will find himself in more challenging circumstances and luck won’t quite go his way. And that is when you find out if a driver really is worth the hype.

The point is that it’s swings and roundabouts. Lewis Hamilton had a problematic pitstop during the Malaysian Grand Prix. This was the most convincing of the explanations of Hamilton’s below-par result put forward by the British journalists.

Now, I have seen a lot of people saying that he was “destined” for a podium were it not for that pitstop problem. This could well be true. Hamilton was, after all, ahead of Kovalainen before the first round of pitstops. But if bad luck cost him the podium, good luck would also have won him it. Massa’s spin automatically promoted Hamilton one position. In F1, you take the rough with the smooth.

Moreover, the press raves about Hamilton being a prodigious passer. Yet he struggled for several laps to find a way past Webber and Trulli. Extending the “what if” argument, I could just as easily say that Hamilton would have been destined for a podium if he was able to pass Webber early on in the race. The fact that he didn’t get that podium place was down to his lack of skill.

Complaints about the bad luck of the pitstop also ignore the possibility (and I admit that it is just a possibility, before anyone starts moaning in the comments, but at least I acknowledge both sides of the story) that the problem could have been caused by Hamilton’s driving style. We have seen Hamilton struggle in terms of tyre management a few times now. I think it is notable that most of Hamilton’s major mechanical failures have been tyre-related. He obviously pushes them too hard.

In Malaysia, we saw some bad wear on his left front tyre. The pitcrew had trouble getting his right front tyre off. It is feasible that Hamilton’s driving style could have been the root of the problem.

When you begin to point out the defects in the story that has been built by the British F1 storytellers “reporters” the standard fallback is to enthuse about his “amazing rookie season”. No doubt about it, Hamilton’s rookie season was indeed amazing. The stats speak for themselves.

But who was the most successful rookie before Lewis Hamilton? Jacques Villeneuve, that’s who. The circumstances are quite similar actually. Both drivers took four wins (although Villeneuve did so when the season had fewer races), both drivers gave their more experienced team mate a run for their money and both drivers were in what was almost certainly the best car at the time.

Arguably, Jacques Villeneuve’s task was more difficult than Hamilton’s. Hamilton was groomed for the position for over a decade and methodically made his way through the standard route to F1. Hamilton’s last destination before F1 was GP2, a series that is specifically designed as F1’s feeder series.

Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve took the less conventional route via CART IndyCar. These are very different cars to F1 machines. We have since seen a succession of drivers make the move from CART or IndyCar to F1. All of them were disappointments by F1 standards. Indeed, after his rather good first two seasons, Jacques Villeneuve’s F1 career was one long spiralling disaster.

There is no dispute as to whether or not Lewis Hamilton is good. Everyone knows that Hamilton is good. The question is this: Is he good in a Clark, Senna or Schumacher sense? Or is he good in a Jacques Villeneuve sense?

The answer on 27 March 2008 is that we simply don’t know. Hamilton may very well turn out to be this generation’s Senna. When that happens — and we will only know after a few more years — then I will be celebrating his success. But it is disingenuous to say today that he is this generation’s Senna. There is simply no way of knowing if that is the truth.

Now consider the possibility that Hamilton isn’t this generation’s Senna, contrary to what the British journalists have been saying. Then what? The journalists, having colluded to make a mountain out of a molehill in order to further their careers, will then have serious egg on their collective face. Then they will have to come up with their excuses. And we all know what happens then. In traditional British media style, they will rip Lewis Hamilton apart.

So when I sound a note of caution about Lewis Hamilton it is not just because I am a party pooper. It is basic common sense that stops me from comparing Hamilton to the likes of Senna and Clark until he has truly established himself as being worthy of such company.

Because if he underperforms from now on (and it is an if), the British public will be ready to rip him apart for the crime of being good rather than great. And how awful would that be?

Where does blogging come into this? Well, there is an old debate about whether blogs, podcasts and the like are competing with and / or threatening the future of traditional media outlets.

My normal response to this is that the debate is a red herring. Blogs and the MSM can complement each other, but they do not often compete with each other. The point is to recognise where your competitive advantage is.

The mainstream media has the resources to cover a story properly, from all the angles. They can afford to hire trained journalists. In short, their competitive advantage is in balanced reporting. This means that if I turn to the section of the newspaper headed “Formula 1″ I expect to see a Formula 1 report, not a barely disguised Lewis Hamilton report.

And don’t give me this “of course the British papers will follow the British driver” tosh. Formula 1 drivers don’t represent countries — they represent themselves! F1 has never been a sport about nationalities. Despite the dominance of Ferrari, Italy has never won a scratch in an F1 season. F1 is a sport about teams of constructors and individual drivers.

Normally you would turn to the blogs for the polemics and the opinionated rants. But it is clear to me that, in Britain at least, the roles have been reversed. British F1 fans have nowhere to turn for an unslanted professional take on events. Now it is up to the bloggers to step up to the plate.

I’m not just saying this. Despite what I have said in this post, I have become less irate about the British media’s coverage over the winter. This might be because I have become immune to it having been subjected to it all last season. But I have another theory — I have subconsciously stopped looking to the mainstream media as my first destination of F1 news and opinion. I wasn’t even aware of what the British journalists were writing until I read Negative Camber’s posts and heard his rants.

In the past I always listened to the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast first. Sometime, without consciously realising it, I swapped to listening to Sidepodcast and Formula 1 Blog’s podcast before listening to any mainstream media offering. This must be because I am getting a better overall view of events from the amateurs than I am from the professionals. What a sorry state for the British media to be in.

Everywhere you go it seems to be Danica Patrick this, Danica Patrick that. Formula 1 websites are full of news about her, even though she has only tenuous links to Formula 1 itself. On GrandPrix.com, for instance, in the past couple of weeks we have had these stories: ‘Danica talks about F1′, ‘Patrick wing fetches $42,650′, ‘Danica for Indianapolis’, ‘Cover girl!’, ‘The Danica effect quantified’. Check out the Indy 500 website. The second most prominent headline is ‘‘Danica Mania’ Drives Brisk Merchandise Sales At Indy’.

So who is this Danica Patrick person then?

She came fourth in the Indianapolis 500. She also has the good fortune of being a woman. In one sense it’s great, in another sense it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong, finishing fourth in the Indy 500 is a marvellous achievement. I didn’t watch the Indianapolis 500 — infact I never have; I don’t really ‘get’ oval racing — so I don’t know for myself how good she was. But apparently she is the first woman to do this, that and the other.

But let’s put it in perspective. She finished fourth, which means that three drivers were faster than her. And how much about those three drivers have we heard about? I caught a couple of headlines about Dan Wheldon. That’s it. Infact, I’m finding it difficult to even find out who finished second and third.

Now think about how many drivers from American racing series have made it into Formula 1 over the past ten years. Er, well there’s that dinosaur Jacques Villeneuve, who was good for about one and a half years, only when he was in the best car. And there’s Alex Zanardi who just couldn’t get back to grips with Formula 1 after spending so long away. Then there’s terminal hot-head Juan Pablo Montoya. Not to forget the highly mediocre Cristiano da Matta. All of them won championships in America, and struggled in F1.

Watch an IndyCar race, on the other hand, and sometimes it’s almost like a dumping ground for F1’s also-rans, has-beens and drivers who were quite promising a few years ago (Tomaš Enge anyone?). Danica Patrick finished fourth in one race.

Of course, I think it would be great for a woman to compete in Formula 1 again. Embarassingly for the sport, motor racing must be almost unique in that it has actually become more difficult for women to take part in it over the years.

There hasn’t even been a serious attempt to create a separate women-only category. I do vaguely remember an ITV programme from last year called Formula Woman. It seemed to be part lower-formula car racing, part reality show. It was, of course, terrible tokenistic tosh.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that when a woman drives a Formula 1 car in the future, all the focus will simply be on the fact that she is a woman, and nothing to do with her driving talent. The overblown coverage of Danica Patrick over the past few weeks is proof of this. Already, Patrick’s image is far closer to that of Anna Kournikova than Lindsay Davenport.

There were rumours that Patrick would drive a BAR Honda at Indianapolis this weekend. That one showed up the overblown coverage of Patrick, because it turned out not to be true. But it’s conceivable. In the world of Formula 1 where image gimmicks are so important, mid-grid Formula 1 teams may clamber all over each other in order to employ such a woman. But for all the wrong reasons.